The Weakened Christ Strengthened.
“And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.” — Luke xxii. 43.
June 5th, 1881
I SUPPOSE that this incident happened immediately after our Lord’s first prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. His pleading became so fervent, so intense, that it forced from him a bloody sweat. He was, evidently, in a great agony of fear as he prayed and wrestled even unto blood. We are told, by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that he “was heard in that he feared.” It is probable that this angel came in answer to that prayer. This was the Father’s reply to the cry of his fainting Son, who was enduring an infinity of sorrow because of his people’s sin; and who must, therefore, be divinely upheld as to his manhood, lest he should be utterly crushed beneath the terrible weight that was pressing upon his holy soul.
Scarcely had our Saviour prayed before the answer to his petition came. It reminds us of Daniel’s supplication, and of the angelic messenger who was caused to fly so swiftly that, as soon as the prayer had left the prophet’s lips, Gabriel stood there with the reply to it. So, brethren and sisters, whenever your times of trial come, always betake yourselves to your knees. Whatever shape your trouble may take, — if, to you, it should even seem to be a faint representation of your Lord’s agony in Gethsemane, put yourselves into the same posture as that in which he sustained the great shock that came upon him. Kneel down, and cry to your Father who is in heaven, who is able to save you from death, who will prevent the trial from utterly destroying you, will give you strength that you may be able to endure it, and will bring you through it to the praise of the glory of his grace.
That is the first lesson for us to learn from our Lord’s experience in Gethsemane, — the blessing of prayer. He has bidden us pray, but he has done more than that, for he has set us the example of prayer; and if example be, as we are sure it is, far more powerful than precept, let us not fail to imitate our Saviour in the exercise of potent, prevalent, repeated supplication, whenever our spirits are cast down, and we are in sore distress of soul. Possibly, you have sometimes said, “I feel so sorrowful that I cannot pray.” Nay, brother, that is the very time when you must pray. As the spices, when bruised, give forth all the more fragrance because of the bruising, so let the sorrow of your spirit cause it to send forth the more fervent prayer to the God who is both able and willing to deliver you. You must express your sorrow in one way or another; so let it not be expressed in murmuring, but in supplication. It is a vile temptation, on the part of Satan, to keep you away from the mercy-seat when you have most need to go there; but do not yield to that temptation. Pray till you can pray; and if you find that you are not filled with the Spirit of supplication, use whatever measure of the sacred bedewing you have; and so, by-and-by, you shall have the baptism of the Spirit, and prayer shall become to you a happier and more joyful exercise than it is at present. Our Saviour said to his disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death;” yet then, above all times, he was in an agony of prayer; and, in proportion to the intensity of his sorrow was the intensity of his supplication.
In our text, there are two things to note. First, our Lord's weakness; and, secondly, our Lord's strengthening.
I. First, then, let us meditate for a little while upon OUR LORD’S WEAKNESS.
That he was exceedingly weak, is clear from the fact that an angel came from heaven to strengthen him, for the holy angels never do anything that is superfluous. They are the servants of an eminently practical God, who never does that which it is unnecessary for him to do. If Jesus had not needed strengthening, an angel would not have come from heaven to strengthen him. But how strange it sounds, to our ears, that the Lord of life and glory should be so weak that he should need to be strengthened by one of his own creatures! How extraordinary it seems that he, who is “very God of very God,” should, nevertheless, when he appeared on earth as Immanuel, God with us, so completely take upon himself our nature that he should become so weak as to need to be sustained by angelic agency! This struck some of the older saints as being derogatory to his divine dignity; so some manuscripts of the New Testament omit this passage; it is supposed that the verse was struck out by some who claimed to be orthodox, lest, perhaps, the Arians should lay hold upon it, and use it to bolster up their heresies. I cannot be sure who did strike it out, and I am not altogether surprised that they should have done so. They had no right to do anything of the kind, for whatever is revealed in the Scriptures must be true. But they seemed to shudder at the thought that the Son of God should ever have been so weakened as to need the support of an angelic messenger to strengthen him.
Yet, brethren and sisters, this incident proves the reality of our Saviour's manhood. Here you can perceive how fully he shares the Weakness of our humanity; — not in spiritual weakness, so as to became guilty of any sin; — but in mental weakness, so as to be capable of great depression of spirit; and in physical weakness, so as to be exhausted to the last degree by his terrible bloody sweat. What is extreme weakness? It is something different from, pain, for sharp pain evidences at least some measure of strength; but perhaps some of you know what it is to feel as if you were scarcely alive; you were so weak that you could hardly realize that you were actually living. The blood flowed, if it flowed at all, but very slowly in the canals of your veins; everything seemed stagnant within you. You were very faint, you almost wished that you could become unconscious, for the consciousness you had was extremely painful; you were so weak and sick that you seemed almost ready to die. Our Master’s words, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death,” prove that the shadow of impending dissolution hung darkly over his spirit, soul, and body, so that he could truly quote the 22nd Psalm, and say, “Thou hast brought me into' the dust of death.” I think, beloved, that you ought to be glad it was so with your Lord, for now you can see how completely he is made like unto his brethren, in their mental depression and physical weakness, as well as in other respects.
It will help you to get an idea of the true manhood of Christ if you remember that this was not the only time when he was weak. He, the Son of man, was once a babe; and, therefore, all the tender ministries that have to be exercised because of the helplessness of infancy were necessary also in his case. Wrapped in swaddling bands, and lying in a manger, that little child was, all the while, the mighty God, though he condescended to keep his omnipotence in abeyance in order that he might redeem his people from their sins. Doubt not his true humanity, and learn from it how tenderly he is able to sympathize with all the ills of childhood, and all the griefs of boyhood, which are not so few or so small as some people imagine.
Besides being thus an infant, and gradually growing in stature just as other children do, our Lord Jesus was often very weary. How the angels must have wondered as they saw him, who sways the sceptre of universal sovereignty, and marshals all the starry hosts according to his will, as he, “being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well” at Sychar, waiting for the woman whose soul he had gone to win, and wiping the sweat from his brow, and resting himself after having travelled over the burning acres of the land. The prophet Isaiah truly said that “the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary.” That is the divine side of his glorious nature. “Jesus, therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well.” That was the human side of his nature. We read that “he did eat nothing” during the forty days’ temptation in the wilderness, and “he afterwards hungered.” Have any of you ever known what it has been to suffer the bitterness of hunger? Then, remember that our Lord Jesus Christ also endured that pang. He, whom we rightly worship and adore as “God blessed for ever,” as the Son of man, the- Mediator between God and men, hungered; and he also thirsted, for he said to the woman at the well, “Give me to drink.”
In addition to this, our Saviour was often so weary that he slept, which is another proof of his true humanity. He was so tired, once, that he slept even when the ship was tossing to and fro in a storm, and was ready to sink. On one- occasion, we read that the disciples “took him even as he was in the ship,” which seems to me to imply even more than it says, namely, that he was so- worn out that he was scarcely able to- get into the ship; but “they took him even as he was,” and there he fell asleep. We know, moreover, that “Jesus wept,” — not merely once, or twice, but many times; and we also know what completes the proof of his humanity, — that he died. It was a strange phenomenon that he, to whom the Father has given “to have life in himself,” should have been called to pass through the gloomy shades of death, that he might in all points be made like unto his brethren, and so be able to fully sympathize with us. O ye weak ones, see how weak your Lord became that he might make you strong! We might read that familiar passage, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich;” in a slightly different way, “though he was strong, yet for your sakes he became weak, that ye through his weakness might be strong.” Therefore, beloved, “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.”
What was the reason for the special weakness of our Saviour when in the garden of Gethsemane? I cannot now go fully into that matter, but I want you to notice what it was that tried him so severely there. I suppose, first, it was contact with sin. Our Saviour had always seen the effects of sin upon others, but it had never come home to him so closely as it did when he entered that garden; for there, more than ever before, the iniquity of his people was made to meet upon him, and that contact aroused in him a holy horror. You and I are not perfectly pure, so we are not as horrified at sin as we ought to- be; yet, sometimes, we can say, with the psalmist, “Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law;” but for our gracious Saviour — hearken to the inspired words, they are none of mine, — to be “numbered with the transgressors,” must have been an awful thing to his pure and holy soul. He seemed to shrink back from such a position, and it needed that he should be strengthened in order that he might be able to endure the contact with that terrible mass of iniquity.
But he had, in addition, to bear the burden of that sin. It was not sufficient for him to come into contact with it; but it is written, “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all;” and as he began fully to realize all that was involved in his position as the great Sin-bearer, his spirit seemed to droop, and he became exceedingly weak. Ah, sir! if you have to bear the burden of your own sin when you appear before the judgment seat of God, it will sink you to the lowest hell; but what must Christ’s agony have been when he was bearing the s n of all his people? As the mighty mass of their guilt came rolling upon him, his Father saw that the human soul and the human body both needed to be upheld, else they would have been utterly crushed before the atoning work had been accomplished.
Contact with sin, and the bearing of sin’s penalty, were reason enough to produce the Saviour’s excessive weakness in Gethsemane; but, in addition, he was conscious of the approach of death. I have hoard some people say that we ought not to shrink from death; but I aver that, in proportion as a man is a good man, death will be distasteful to him. You and I have become, to a large extent, familiarized with the thought of death. We know that we must die, — unless the Lord should come soon, — for all who have gone before us have done so, and the seeds of death are sown in us, and, like some fell disease, they are beginning to work within our nature. It is natural that we should expect to die, for we know that we are mortal. If anybody were to tell us that we should be annihilated, any reasonable and sensible man would be horrified at the idea, for that is not natural to the soul of man. Well, now, death was as unnatural to Christ as annihilation would be to us. It had never come to be a part of his nature, his holy soul had none of the seeds of death in it; and his untainted body, — which had never known any kind of disease or corruption, but was as pure as when, first of all, “that holy thing” was created by the Spirit of God, — that also shrank back from death. There were not in it any of the things which make death natural; and, therefore, because of the very purity of his nature, he recoiled at the approach of death, and needed to be specially strengthened in order to meet “the last enemy.”
Probably, however, it was the sense of utter desertion that was preying upon his mind, and so produced that extremity of weakness. All his disciples had failed him, and presently would forsake him. Judas had lifted up his heel against him, and there was not one of all his professed followers who would faithfully cleave to him. Kings, princes, scribes, and rulers were all united against him, and of the people, there were none with him. Worst of all, by the necessity of his expiatory sacrifice, and his substitution for his people, his Father himself withdrew from him the light of his countenance; and, even in the garden, he was beginning to feel that agony of soul which, on the cross, wrung from him that doleful cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And that sense of utter loneliness and desertion, added to all that he had endured, made him so exceedingly weak that it was necessary that he should be specially strengthened for the ordeal through which he had still to pass.
II. Now, in the second place, let us meditate for a little while upon OUR LORD S STRENGTHENING: “There appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.”
It is night, and there he kneels, under the olives, offering up, as Paul says, “prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death.” While wrestling there, he is brought into such a slate of agony that he sweats great drops of blood; and, suddenly, there flashes before him, like a meteor from the midnight sky, a bright spirit that had come straight from the throne of God to minister to him in his hour of need.
Think of the condescension on Christ's part to allow an angel to come and strengthen him. He is the Lord of angels as well as of men. At his bidding, they fly more swiftly than the lightning flash to do his will. Yet, in his extremity of weakness, he was succoured by one of them. It was a wondrous stoop for the infinitely-great and ever-blessed Christ of God to consent that a spirit of his own creation should appear unto him, and strengthen him.
But while I admire the condescension which permitted one angel to come, I equally admire the self-restraint which allowed only one to come; for, if he had so pleased, he might have appealed to his Father, and he would at once have sent to him “more than twelve legions of angels.” No, he did not make such a request; he rejoiced to have one to strengthen him, but he would not have any more. Oh, what matchless beauties are combined in our blessed Saviour! You may look on this side of the shield, and you will perceive that it is of pure gold. Then you may look on the other side of it, but you will not discover that it is brass, as in the fable, for it is gold all through. Our Lord Jesus is “altogether lovely.” What he does, or what he refrains from doing, equally deserves the praises of his people.
How could the angel strengthen Christ? That is a very natural enquiry; but it is quite possible that, when we have answered that question as well as we can, we shall not have given a full and satisfactory reply to it. Yet I can conceive that, in some mysterious manner, an angel from heaven may have actually infused fresh vigour into the physical constitution of Christ. I cannot positively affirm that it was so, but it seems to me a very likely thing. We do know that God can suddenly communicate new strength to fainting spirits; and, certainly, if he willed it, he could thus lift up the drooping head of his Son, and make him feel strong and resolute again.
Perhaps it was so; but, in any case, it must have strengthened the Saviour to feel that he was in pure company. It is a great joy to a man, who is battling for the right against a crowd who love the wrong, to find a comrade by his side who loves the truth as he loves it himself. To a pure mind, obliged to listen to the ribald jests of the licentious, I know of nothing that is more strengthening than to get a whisper in the ear from one who says, “I, too, love that which is chaste and pure, and hate the filthy conversation of the wicked.” So, peradventure, the mere fact of that shining angel standing by the Saviour’s side, or reverently bowing before him, may in itself have strengthened him.
Next to that, was the tender sympathy which this angelic ministration proved. I can imagine that all the holy angels leant over the battlements of heaven to watch the Saviour’s wondrous life; and now that they see him in the garden, and perceive, by his whole appearance, and his desperate agony, that death is drawing near to him, they are so astonished that they crave permission that at least one of their number shall go down to see if he cannot carry succour to him from his Father’s house above. I can imagine the angels saying, “Did we not sing of him at Bethlehem when he was born? Did not some of us minister to him when he was in the desert, and amongst wild beasts, hungry after his long fast and terrible temptation? Has he not been seen of angels all the while he has been on earth? Oh, let some one of us go to his relief!” And I can readily suppose that God said to Gabriel, “Thy name means, ‘The strength of God,’ go and strengthen your Lord in Gethsemane,” “and there appeared an angel unto him from heaven strengthening him;” and I think that he was strengthened, at least in part, by observing the sympathy of all the heavenly host with him in his season of secret sorrow. He might seem to be alone as man; but, as Lord and King, he had on his side an innumerable company of angels who waited to do his will; and here was one of them, come to assure him that he was not alone, after all.
Next, no doubt, our Saviour was comforted by the angel’s willing service. You know, dear brothers and sisters, how a little act of kindness will cheer us when we are very low in spirit. If we are despised and rejected of men, if we are deserted and defamed by those who ought to have dealt differently with us, even a tender look from a child will help to remove our depression. In times of loneliness, it is something even to have a dog with you, to lick your hand, and show you such kindness as is possible from him. And our blessed Master, who always appreciated, and still appreciates, the least service rendered to him, — for not a cup of cold water, given to a disciple, in Christ’s name, shall lose its reward, — was cheered by the devotion and homage of the ministering spirit that came from heaven to strengthen him. I wonder if the angel worshipped him, — I think that he could do no less; and it must have been something to worship the blood-red Son of God. Oh, that any one of us could have paid him such homage as that! The time for such special ministry as that is over now; yet my faith seems to bring him back here, at this moment, just as if we were in Gethsemane. I adore thee, thou blessed eternal God, — never more God-like than when thou didst prove thy perfect manhood by sweating great drops of blood in the awful weakness of thy depression in the garden of sorrow!
Peradventure, too, the angel’s presence comforted and strengthened the Saviour as being a sort of foretaste of his final victory. What was this angel but the pioneer of all the heavenly host that would come to meet him when the fight was over? He was one who, in full confidence of his Lord’s victory, had flown before the rest, to pay homage to the conquering Son of God, who would tread the old dragon beneath his feet. You remember how, when Jesus was born, first there came one angel who began to speak of him to the shepherds, “and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The first angel had, as it were, stolen a march upon his brethren, and got before them; but, no sooner was the wondrous news bruited through heaven’s streets, than every angel resolved to overtake him ere his message was completed. So, here again is one that had come as an outrider, to remind his Lord of his ultimate victory, and there were many more afterwards to come with the same glad tidings; but, to the Saviour’s heart, that angel’s coming was a token that he would lead captivity captive; and that myriads of other bright spirits would crowd around him, and cry, “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; that the King of glory, fresh from his blood-red shame, may enter into his heavenly and eternal inheritance!”
Yet once more, is it not very likely that this angel brought the Saviour a message from heaven? The angels are generally God’s messengers, so they have something to communicate from; him; and, perhaps, this angel, bending over the Saviour’s prostrate form, whispered in his ear, “Be of good cheer; thou must pass through all this agony, but thou wilt thereby save an innumerable multitude of the sons and daughters of men, who will love and worship thee and thy Father for ever and for ever. He is with thee even at this moment. Though he must hide his face from thee, because of the requirements of justice that the atonement may be complete, his heart is with thee, and he loves thee ever.” Oh, how our Lord Jesus must have been cheered if some such words as these were whispered into his ears!
Now, in closing, let us try to learn the lessons of this incident. Beloved brothers and sisters, you and I may have to pass through great griefs, — certainly, ours will never be so great as those of our Divine Master; — but we may have to follow through the same waters. Well, at such times, as I have already said, let us resort to prayer, and let us be content to receive comfort from the humblest instrumentality. “That is too simple an observation,” say you. It is a very simple one, but it is one that some people have need to remember. You remember how Naaman the Syrian was healed through the remark of a little captive girl; and, sometimes, great saints have been cheered by the words of very little people. You recollect how Dr. Guthrie, when he was dying, wanted “a bairn’s hymn.” It was just like him, great, glorious, simple-minded child-man that he was. He said what you and I must sometimes have felt that we wanted, — a bairn’s hymn, — a child’s joyful song to cheer us up in our hour of depression and sorrow.
There are some people, who seem as if they would not be converted unless they can see some eminent minister. Even that will not suit some of them; they want a special revelation from heaven. They will not take a text from the Bible, — though I cannot conceive of anything better than that; — but they think that, if they could dream something, or if they could hear words spoken, in the cool of the evening, by some strange voice in the sky, then they might be converted. Well, brothers and sisters, if you will not eat the apples that grow on trees, you must not expect angels to come and bring them to you. We have a more sure word of testimony in the Bible than we can have anywhere else. If you will not be converted by that Word, it is a great pity; and it is much more than a pity, it is a great sin. If your Lord and Master condescended to receive consolation from an angel whom he had himself created, you ought to be willing to gather comfort from the feeblest speech of the poorest person, — from the least of the people of God when they try to cheer you.
I have known an old professor say of a young minister, “It is no use for me to hear him, for he has not had the experience that I have had, so how can he instruct or help me?” O sirs, I have known many old saints get more comfort out of godly boys than they did from those of their own age! God knows how, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, to perfect praise; and I have never heard that he has done that out of the mouths of old men. Why is that? Because they know too much; but the children do not know anything; and, therefore, out of their mouths the praise of God is perfect. So let us never despise God’s messengers, however humble they may be.
The next lesson is, while you should be thankful for the least comforter; yet, in your times of deepest need, you may expect the greatest comforters to come to you. Let me remind you that an angel appeared to Joseph when Herod was seeking Christ’s life. Then, later, angels appeared to Christ when the devil had been tempting him. And now, at Gethsemane, when there was a peculiar manifestation of diabolical malice, for it was the hour of the powers of darkness; then, when the devil was loose, and doing his utmost against Christ, an angel came from heaven to strengthen him. So, when you are in your heaviest trials, you shall have your greatest strength. Perhaps you will have little to do with angels till you get into deep trouble, and then shall the promise be fulfilled, “He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.” They are always ready to be your keepers; but, in the matter of spiritual strengthening, these holy spirits may have little to do with some of you until you stand foot to foot with Apollyon, and have to fight stern battles with the evil one himself. It is worth while to go through rough places to have angels to bear you up. It is worth while to go to Gethsemane, if there we may have angels from heaven to strengthen us. So, be of good comfort, brethren, whatever lies before you. The darker your experience is, the brighter will be that which comes out of it. The disciples feared as they entered the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration; but when they had passed right into it, they saw Jesus, Moses, and Elias in glory. O ye who are the true followers of Christ, fear not the clouds that lower darkly over you, for you shall see the brightness behind them, and the Christ in them; and blessed shall your spirits be.
But if you are not believing in Christ, I am indeed grieved for you, for you shall have the sorrow without the solace, — the cup of bitterness without the angel, — the agony, and that for ever, without the messenger from heaven to console you. Oh, that ye would all believe in Jesus! God help you so to do. for Christ’s sake! Amen.